Weekend Film Recommendation: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

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Have you ever seen a movie that stuck in your head for reasons you couldn’t fully explain? A film that you eventually realized had a much bigger impact on you than it seemed to when you were sitting in the theater? That was my experience with this week’s film recommendation: 1943′s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Made during the war by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (aka “The Archers”), the film tells the eventful life story of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) over a more than 4-decade span. The borderline-bizarre opening sequence, which might just as easily have presaged a big-budget MGM musical, introduces us to Candy in the winter of his life, where he has taken on the unappealing characteristics of the self-satisfied, out of touch cartoon character known as Colonel Blimp. But with a nice bit of camera trickery, Candy recalls the memory of his salad days, and is transformed into the markedly different young man that he was: Handsome, kind, brave and in some ways boyishly innocent. The film then portrays his adventures through heroic moments, comic situations, romance and friendship, with two other other figures serving as foils. One is a noble German officer whom he meets in World War I (Anton Walbrook) and the other is the eternal feminine: Three different characters all played by Deborah Kerr who stay the same age as Candy ages through life.

There is much to love about this long, multi-layered and richly rewarding film. The craft and humanity of the producer-director-screenwriting team is on full display, making it surprising that this movie is not remembered as often as their other triumphs such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Powell and Pressburger’s characters are unusually well rounded and evolve over time, which was rare for movies of this period. Indeed, Winston Churchill allegedly opposed the release of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp because it portrayed a German soldier so movingly that the British public might sympathize with their current enemy (once you have seen the movie, you will realize how ludicrous this fear was).

The thematic latticework of the film is truly compelling. On the surface, the movie can be enjoyed as an exciting life story full of moments of humor and action. But at a deeper level, the film explores how old-fashioned values were unable to meet the demands of the mid 20th-century, how the young can grow up to be very different older people than ever they planned, how loving one’s country has rewards and limits, how men may think they are smarter than women but are almost always wrong, and how we don’t always understand what we long for until it is gone. Wonderfully, the film never preaches a particular simple message about any of these themes. Rather, it gives each character and viewpoint its due, sympathetically and sometimes sadly, without ever taking sides.

Visually, this is Technicolor at its best, with Georges Périnal painting the screen with one stunning shot after the other. The anchoring performances by Livesey, Walbrook and Kerr are also magnificent, not just individually but in the way they play off each other. Indeed, the performances (and the well-scripted characters) make the film even better than a similar epic movie made in the same era: Cavalcade. That fine movie at times kept the viewer at some emotional distance because its toffy characters were a bit inaccessible; here one can’t help but be drawn into the emotional lives of the people on screen.

There could be no better closing to this review that Martin Scorsese’s description of how this landmark movie was restored to its original, glorious form. Scorsese is not just a brilliant filmmaker in his own right; he is also a lifelong student of cinema and a champion of preserving its past. He first saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as a child. Even though it was a mutilated version with over 40 minutes cut out and the rest of the scenes re-arranged, and even though he watched it on a small black and white television, he could still perceive Powell and Pressburger’s genius. Scorsese’s 5-minute featurette is an inspiring example of what film restoration can do and also includes intriguing information for film buffs on how Technicolor movies were made.

Making Roadside Cannabis Use Testing Effective and Fair

Breathalyzers are extremely useful for detecting drunk driving. They allow rapid roadside testing that is accurate for answering the critical question: Is this person intoxicated right now? In contrast, urinalysis for detecting cannabis-intoxication in drivers has multiple liabilities. The test can’t be done at the roadside so the person has to be hauled in (perhaps unjustly) to a testing station. Also, a recent paper in the Journal of Analytic Toxicology points out another serious problem:

the typical target in urine is the inactive metabolite, [which is] less relevant with respect to impairment. In addition, drug metabolites become concentrated in urine and may be excreted for many hours, or days after use, and are less probative with respect to whether a person’s drug use was recent or more historical.

Tetrahydrocannabinol is lipid-soluble and regular pot smokers excrete it over time in their urine even if they haven’t smoked recently. As a result, a urine test could result in a cannabis-impaired driving conviction even though the person isn’t currently stoned. The JAT paper evaluated a different approach which may resolve these problems: Oral fluid sampling. The driver suspected of impairment is mouth swabbed at roadside and the saliva is placed in a machine, which rapidly prints out a result. This technology is fairer than urinalysis because it is only sensitive to recent marijuana use rather than use that happened a day ago or a week ago.

Of the devices the researchers tested in the study, the Dräger Drug Test 5000 (pictured above) had the best results. Assuming it doesn’t cost a mint, this technology could be a breakthrough for law enforcement as well as an important civil rights protection for people suspected of drug-impaired driving.

Remembering Patrick Gowers

The worlds of music and film are poorer for the recent passing of composer Patrick Gowers. Many people know him from his magnificent theme music for Smiley’s People. My own favorite is his theme to the Granada Sherlock Holmes series:

Rest in peace Mr. Gowers and thank you for the pleasure you brought me and millions of other film fans around the world.

A Measure of the Sin is Now Available For Free Viewing on Hulu

measure_texture_new_02I have posted before about the multi-award winning independent film A Measure of the Sin. I am writing today to announce that you can now watch it for free here on Hulu.

If you want to see reviews by critics, check out IMDB. Overwhelmingly positive, with a few reviewers dissenting. I expected that, as like most art house films, it’s not for all tastes. But I am happy to see how passionate its growing fan base already is about the movie.

The Subjectivity of War Journalism

Charles Lane of Washington Post has written a thoughtful, commendably candid piece on war journalism in the wake of Brian Williams’ prevarications. Chuck points out that the typical life of a war correspondent – long, boring stretches interspersed by frightening, humiliating moments – contrasts starkly with the legends that can dominant the journalistic mind:

Alas, the notion that nearly getting killed confers some sort of extra reportorial credibility is a deeply ingrained cultural norm, among both producers and consumers of news. I don’t know who’s to blame for this; maybe it all goes back to Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and the civil war in Spain.

Ernie Pyle with Marines on Okinawa, 1945

Ernie Pyle with Marines on Okinawa, 1945

Personally, I think of the amazing Ernie Pyle as the ghost some war journalists are chasing, not just because he took tremendous risks and ultimately died in combat but also because the grunts accepted him as one of their own. To newsreaders who spend more on hair care products each year than the typical soldier’s salary, the thought that hanging out with G.I.s on camera will bring them some precious “down to earth, regular guy” cred is extremely tantalizing. Such journalists are just as tempted to manufacture that image as they are to gin up phony tales of combat like Williams did.

The Williams scandal is an instance of a more general challenge of war journalism in that by its nature, it offers less opportunity for editors to monitor and fact-check journalists’ work. A lot of the reporting relies on one person’s subjectivity, and if that person is dishonest, they can distort the story far more than they could ever get away with in a different setting. But in my observation, self-promoting embellishment is not the main fount of subjectivity that can color how wars are covered by journalists.

I got to know a number of war correspondents through my Iraq work, and some of them I would rank among the most impressive people I have ever met. But I was also struck how many of them were depressed, were fleeing disastrous marital/family situations, drank too much and/or were terminal adrenaline junkies. Some had full-blown PTSD, a larger group had less serious but still significant problems of that sort (perhaps masking it as world-weary cynicism/bitterness).

Like our soldiers, a number of them had mental health problems when they came back. I tried to help those who asked for support as best as could, and at least some of them have pulled things together and are doing well stateside. But some continue to struggle, permanently altered for the worse by the events to which they were exposed in war zones.

These experiences changed the way I consume war-related news coverage. As I read, I weigh in my mind that the person writing it may well have some emotional scars that lead them to report events in a different way, most commonly tilted toward a bleaker take than objective events warrant. I don’t say this in criticism because I appreciate that, unlike Williams, they have an excuse when their personal psychology begins to dominate their reporting. But it does lead me to be unusually cautious in taking their reports at face value.

Watch The President Trivialize His Office With a Comic Video

President Obama is being lambasted by some critics for allegedly trivializing his office by making a funny video. An unprecedented low that was particularly inexcusable when ISIS is slaughtering innocents and Russia is menacing the Ukraine? Never would have happened in the good old days, especially not before a US-hating Democrat took the White House?

Well, the passing of Laugh In’s Gary Owens made me remember some relevant history:

And don’t forget that Nixon was running for President at the time and we were at war in Viet Nam.

Is Reduced Enforcement Leading More Americans to Smoke Pot?

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The number of arrests for marijuana possession is often thrown around as if it had some inherent meaning, e.g., that if the number goes up year-on-year the police must really be cracking down. But a rising number of arrests can mean that enforcement intensity is lessening if the prevalence of the underlying offence is increasing even faster, and a declining number of arrests can betoken increasing enforcement intensity if the underlying offence is declining in prevalence even faster. Also, the same number of arrests has a different meaning for crimes with different prevalence: 1,000 arrests a year in a big city represents aggressive enforcement if the arrests are for homicide, minimal enforcement if the crime is marijuana possession.

Fortunately, readily available federal data allow us to look at marijuana arrests in light of how many people use the drug and how use trends are changing over time. In the chart above, the red line is marijuana possession arrests reported to the FBI and the green line is aggregate days of marijuana use reported by respondents to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The full picture is of marijuana enforcement intensity swooning for a long time, well before any states formally legalized recreational markets.

Some people might look at this chart and ask whether the correlation between reduced arrests and increased pot smoking proves that the former caused the latter. I asked drug policy expert Dr. Beau Kilmer that question and he gave the following answer: “No.”

Let me elaborate on why I agree with Beau’s pithy response. For a behavior to be deterred, there has to be a reasonable likelihood of punishment. Even before enforcement intensity began to plummet, the risk of being arrested for smoking marijuana was very low. For the recent enforcement drop to have cause the increase in marijuana use, people would have had to notice when a once a week pot smoker’s risk of arrest dropped from once every 50 years to once every century. That’s not a sufficiently noticeable difference in the deterrent power of enforcement to be driving such a dramatic change in use.

Making a drug illegal deters use by raising prices, because prices go up everywhere when a business cannot operate legally. Higher prices are deterrent because, unlike police, they really can be everywhere. Routine enforcement of prohibition is needed to sustain that economic effect, but beyond that, ramping up arrests does little or nothing to deter a behavior as prevalent as pot use (If you are interested in the academic research behind that point, this book is a good starting point).

If you want to read more about the above data and hear more of what I learned when I interviewed Beau, check out my latest piece at Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

Children are Marriage and Family Traditionalists

Early in my clinical career, I delivered psychosocial services to families who were going through divorce. Those experiences came back to me in a profound way as I have watched some Disney films with kids over the past few weeks. In children’s movies, the happy ending often isn’t just about the child characters succeeding by finding the lost treasure/defeating the school bully/solving the ancient mystery. On top of these happy outcomes is often a parental couple resolving interpersonal differences or a mom-like and dad-like character getting married (e.g., The Apple Dumpling Gang). And as for step-parents, you can pretty much count on them being evil in movies targeted at little ones.

From this I conclude that Disney really understood how traditional children are in matters of marriage and family. They want parents to stick with each other through thick and thin. They don’t notice or even care if the parents are squabbling, unfulfilled, not growing emotionally etc., they just want them to stick together and stick around. Even when a parent behaves horribly, for example by being violent or otherwise abusive, and a marriage ends, children often fantasize that the marriage will somehow be patched up.

In the powerhouse film Gone Baby Gone, a police detective makes a similar observation as he describes his reaction to an abused boy whom he finds in a crack house:

I mean, the father’s got him in this crack den, subsisting on Twinkies and ass-whippings, and this little boy just wants someone to tell him that he’s doing a good job. You’re worried what’s Catholic? I mean, kids forgive. Kids don’t judge. Kids turn the other cheek. What do they get for it?

As adults, we learn that some marriages, sadly, are never going to work and that some family situations are so dangerous and destructive that they simply cannot continue. Working with people in those situations, I saw them experience a two-fold agony. They were grappling not only with the pain of their current situation, but also with the loss of their childhood faith in the inevitability of happy endings.

One of the Late Lizabeth Scott’s Terrific Film Noirs

Alas, noir icon Lizabeth Scott has exited life’s stage. In tribute I re-run my September 28, 2012 review of one of her best movies:

Last week, I recommended I Walk Alone, a 1948 gangster melodrama directed by Byron Haskin with Lizabeth Scott and Kristen Miller in supporting parts and Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the leads. The following year, the first three of those talented people re-teamed to make this week’s recommendation: Too Late for Tears. This time around, men move to the back of the room to make space for the women characters, the noir elements are much more pronounced, and the script offers a more tightly constructed and cleverly plotted story. The result is an even better movie, indeed a treasure of the film noir canon.

The plot has so many surprises that it’s hard to summarize without spoliers, so I will confine myself to the set up. The Palmers are driving down a lonely, winding canyon road. Alan Palmer is a straightforward, true blue type who loves and trusts his wife (or so it seems…). Jane Palmer has been married before to a man who committed suicide (apparently…) and complains that she is tired of not having enough money. But she is so happy to have Arthur as her husband that she doesn’t mind that he isn’t rich (or so she says…). And then, a miracle. Another car throws a suitcase full of kale into their back seat and then drives away without explanation. Clearly some mistake has been made and they ought to go to the police, but it’s so so tempting to keep so so much money. And then they see another car pursuing them: Is it driven by the person who was supposed to receive the payoff that has landed in their lap?

To reveal more would be an injustice. Roy Huggins, who later went on to TV Hall of Famedom for The Rockford Files and The Fugitive, deserves roses for his ingeniously plotted script. It keeps the viewer guessing (usually, wrong) and ties up all the loose ends in a satisfying conclusion.

Kristine Miller, as the sister-in-law who has never really trusted Jane Palmer, has some wonderful scenes with Scott where they are pleasant on the surface but clearly jousting underneath. I find it strange that the alluring and talented Miller never became a star, but she said in late life that in the end Producer Hal Wallis “didn’t know what to do with her”. That’s a shame, because with the right vehicle she could have captured the public’s imagination in way she ultimately did not in the 1940s and 1950s.

The male supporting players, Arthur Kennedy as Alan Palmer, Dan Duryea as a slimy grifter and Don DeFore as a man with mysterious motives, turn in solid performances. And Haskins, in contrast to I Walk Alone, seems in full command from the director’s chair, partly no doubt due to experience and partly because he has a stronger storyline this around.

But this movie is first and foremost dominated by Lizabeth Scott, in a knockout performance. She had an unusual life in film. She looks and sounds like a cross between Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall, and indeed was packaged as a Bacall-type by Hal Wallis. She spent almost her entire career making crime melodramas and film noirs in the 1940s (the fine picture Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart being the mostly widely remembered). And then in the 1950s her career swooned, perhaps because the tabloid press reported that she was a lesbian (Ms. Scott, who turns 90 tomorrow, has shunned publicity for over a half-century, so her view of what happened remains unknown).

I criticized her somewhat stilted performance in I Walk Alone, but I can do nothing but praise her tour-de-force in Too Late for Tears. She owns the screen, in one of a handful of movies made right after the war that was willing to put a tough woman at the center of the story (for another, see my review of Strange Impersonation). In her words, expressions and physical movements, Scott brings alive a femme fatale of hidden motives, craftiness and tough-as-nails pursuit of money. She’s a nasty, manipulative piece of work such that when a tough male actor like Dan Duryea is clearly shocked and repulsed about how much more brutal she is than he ever could be, the audience nods along, mouth agape.

Comparing this film to I Walk Alone is a good way to learn about the nature of film noir. Although I Walk Alone is often mentioned in books about the genre and Too Late for Tears is not, the latter is a much more fully realized example of the style. Look for example at the washed out set design in the Palmers’ apartment and the lighting and camerawork in Scott’s scenes with Duryea. The bleak view of human nature and the number of characters trapped by irresistible, bad impulses are also defining features of what is probably the most completely developed style of American film (Even though, of course, its precursors are European). Why Too Late for Tears isn’t mentioned in the same breath with other noir classics is a mystery to me, because it ranks with the very best of the genre.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Seven in Darkness

sevenTV movies usually are not very good, but I have praised here as an exception to that rule many of the entries in ABC’s Movie of the Week series. I do so again this week by recommending the film that kicked this series off in 1969: Seven in Darkness.

The plot is at one level entirely stale: A group of disparate characters (each with their own dramatic back story, natch) are in peril and must work together to survive. But the movie throws a spanner into the works of the old chestnut (Yes, that is a split metaphor) that makes it completely fresh: All of the characters are blind! After surviving a plane crash on the way to a convention of blind people, seven people realize that the pilots are dead and therefore no one can guide them out of the wilderness to safety.

Terrifying new possibilities emerge within this genre when no one is sighted, making trivial challenges harrowing: Crossing a rotted railway trestle, evading wolves, climbing steep hillsides and determining who in the band of seven has been secretly stealing food. The most effective twist comes as viewers watch in agony as the characters take enormous risks to cross a river because they can’t see that there is a serviceable bridge right over their heads (As your heart sinks watching their struggle, you might find yourself yelling advice). There is also a nice cinematic virtue to the plot set-up: Instead of needing night shoots that are hard to do well and sometimes leave viewers unsure as to what is happening, the film could be shot entirely in daylight because to the characters, it of course might as well be dark out.

Human drama is also woven into the story, some of which works well (e.g., The complex motives of Barry Nelson’s psychotherapist character) and some of which falls flat (e.g., Lesley Ann Warren’s hysterics). But the cast generally does a fine job, and fans of Milton Berle will enjoy him as a cranky, selfish man who dreams of having his sight restored by a new medical procedure.

It’s a TV movie, so there are no big stars or fancy special effects, and much of it looks like it was shot on a sound stage. But as in prior RBC film recommendation Devil in a Blue Dress, the filmmakers got the most from adding a novel element to old tropes and came up aces. The result is 70 minutes of suspense and entertainment which deservedly encouraged ABC to continue with this format for an extended series of above-average made-for-TV movies.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.